Eight Questions for Justin Taylor

PS Web Editor Theodore Wheeler interviews Taylor about self-awareness, his strategies for writing about place, and the greatness of Saul Bellow.

Filed under: Blog, Contributors, Fiction, Interview, Writing |

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He teaches at the Pratt Institute and at New York University. He collects cover songs, standards, and photos of text at askforgiveness.tumblr.com. His own work is collected at justindtaylor.net.

Taylor’s short story, “Flings”, appears in the current issue of Prairie Schooner, now available for order in print or Kindle editions. He is interviewed here by Theodore Wheeler, Web Editor of Prairie Schooner.

In “Flings,” when describing the novel Andy has been working on, you give a fairly accurate description of what is many male writers’ early efforts. It goes, “His narrator was unreliable, unlikable, and calculating: a cipher for his worst self, a conniving sneak with a pornographer’s eye for exploiting sentimentality, matched only by his penchant for producing actual pornography. Every sex act was recorded but not as a memory or emblem of love—more like evidence entered into the record at a trial.” As a young male writer who has broken through and published books, what advice would you give to those guys out there struggling to transcend their “own most regrettable qualities and aggressive failures”? Or do you feel this is a necessary step for writers at all?

Andy mentions early on that Rachel doesn’t like being called his “muse”, but it’s only in the scene you quoted from that he figures out why that is: that she doesn’t see it as an honor but rather as something stifling, a kind of power-play on Andy’s part that she has to resist, and is right to resist, even though it’s not as if Andy’s trying to oppress her. He’s just been using his writing to work through some emotional shit, which is cheaper than therapy and probably more cathartic, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good art. I think all artists—not just writers, and not just men—go through a stage where they come to terms with this (or where they should) but I have to say that the “you’re-my-muse-now-be-the-muse-I-want” thing is especially odious when it transacts between Sad Young Literary Men and their female peers, because it’s tied up with the whole long and tiresome history of patriarchal bullshit in the arts: an inheritance worth rejecting, if ever there was one.

While reading “Flings” it struck me how these characters are aware of building their own narratives, constantly weighing the cultural currency of their references. We learn what movies they identify with, what authors they respect, what restaurants they eat in, what neighborhoods they hang out in. It goes deeper than foursquare or Spotify, but the sheer repetition of place names, place labels, bands, lyrics, authors, colleges seems to have a certain Millennials quality to it. Is this a stylistic tic, do you think, or something deeper about how these characters, and this narrator, think about the people they know, like they’re cursoring over a character’s social media profile?

I think it’s fair to say that the characters in this story are aware that they’re telling themselves stories about themselves and each other, but I’m not sure if it’s because of their age, the generation they’re part of, or—again—their disposition toward the arts. Rachel and Ellen are both film buffs, and Andy is an aspiring writer, so it’s inevitable that they’d make reference to the things they’re interested in, which kind of covers the music references, too. I guess the idea of “soundtracking your life” is a fairly new cultural phenomenon, but it’s at least as old as the Walkman, or the car stereo. Millennials definitely didn’t invent the idea that music is a crucial aspect of identity, or at least that it is for some people. David Gates, Dennis Cooper, Elissa Schappell, and Barry Hannah are all great at writing music into their fiction, whether to reveal character, set mood, develop theme, or just for the sheer fun of it.

As for place-names (whether city, neighborhood, restaurant, cross-street), because this story moves so quickly and bounces between characters so much I wanted to make sure the reader never had to stop and double back to answer a where/when/who question. A key part of “Flings” is its velocity, which is why there aren’t any space breaks, despite some large leaps in place and time

You’re from Florida, now live in New York, and write about both places rather fluently. How do you go about balancing provincialism and cosmopolitanism? Is there a difference for you when writing about these places? Or are they both just settings, to be approached the same as stories set in Oregon or Tennessee?

I always write from a sense of place. That might mean a city, a neighborhood, a house, a park, but for me figuring out where a story is set is a big part of getting it going. Part of my “process” I guess you’d say, though I’m not sure it isn’t just a habit or tic. But in terms of what the reader ultimately sees, the prominence of the landscape in a given story depends on the whole network of things that have to work together in order for the story to work. Writing a place I know—the neighborhood where I grew up, for example—allows me to save my writerly energy for other things. The confidence that comes from authenticity doesn’t hurt either. But with a story like “Flings” (or, from my first book, “Tennessee”) the place is almost another character. It creates a unique set of circumstances that shapes how the characters act and therefore how the story develops. In a case like that you want to be as accurate as you possibly can be, to do justice to the place you’re writing about, and so knowledgeable readers don’t call bullshit on you. The most challenging places to set a story are those where you’ve spent enough time to feel comfortable, but not enough to pass for a local. Portland is a place like that for me—actually, so is Hong Kong, so maybe that’s one reason they’re linked in “Flings.”

What external environmental factors influence your work and writing process the most? Are you a person who likes to be out in the world while writing? Is writing more of a pure reflective task? Do you find yourself being more productive in one season more than the others?

I do most of my first-drafting by hand on a legal pad, and it doesn’t matter much where that happens: at home, at a bookstore or coffee shop, at the library of one of the schools where I teach. Later-stage revisions happen mostly at home, because that’s where my computer, dictionary, and printer all are, and because I revise in part by reading my work aloud, to test the individual sentences and overall rhythms, and to check for over-used words that your eye might gloss over but your tongue and ear will catch. I’d say that the biggest impacting factor is time. I love teaching and I love doing freelance writing/reviewing, but when you’re doing all those things at once and trying to live your life (eat dinner with loved ones, get laundry to laundromat, etc.) it’s a constant struggle to find time to work. That said, I think that pressure can have a salutary effect—you can feel the story building up inside you, and when you finally steal a few hours for yourself to write you’re not going to second-guess yourself or dawdle around. You’re just going to try and get as much down as you can.

What are you working on now? After a short story collection, two anthologies—one that collected literary tattoos, another literature of the apocalypse—and a novel, where do you go from there?

Well I have to say that I think of the editorial work and my own fiction as two different things, and the fiction is the main thing, not just in this particular binary but overall. I’m a fiction writer before I’m anything else—editor, critic, teacher, whatever. If it wasn’t for that first thing, the rest wouldn’t be there. Right now I’m working on my second collection of stories. “Flings” will be in it, possibly as the title story. It’s about three quarters of the way to completion and the goal is to finish it this year. After that, we’ll see. Editing anthologies is a lot of fun. It draws on a totally different skill-set than writing does. You spend a lot of time reading and talking to people, wrangling submissions and dealing with rights (that part’s not always fun) and then you go out and champion work you truly admire in the loudest voice you can muster. It’s communitarian, especially if you’re co-editing with somebody, which was the case with The Word Made Flesh. Eva Talmadge and I are old friends going back to our undergrad days, and she was my agent for Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and The Gospel of Anarchy. We wanted to do a project together as partners for a change, and this idea came to us and my editor at Harper Perennial, the great Michael Signorelli, was interested, and it had been about five years since The Apocalypse Reader so we said, “Okay, let’s go for it.” It was a great idea for a book but anybody could have come up with it; we just happened to get there first and it gave us a reason to all spend some more time together.

Name one book written in the past five years that you wish you had written? Why?

Wow, that’s a tough one. There have been a lot of recent books that I’ve admired, and it’s only natural for some quotient of envy to be mixed up with that, but to just say, “Put my name on that one”—-I don’t know. And even if I did have an answer, I’m not sure I’d be willing to admit it. I will say that I really enjoyed The Passage by Justin Cronin, and that it was heartening to see a kind of quiet “literary” writer decide to go off the reservation with this pop epic, and to do it so well. The other book that comes to mind, maybe weirdly, is Inferno: A Poet’s Novel by Eileen Myles, which I understand is a lightly fictionalized memoir, which I guess makes it an even weirder choice. If you took the same text and put Justin Taylor’s name on the cover, it would be a totally different thing, which is why I said at first that I didn’t know if I could or should answer. But if you think about the question in a slightly different way—“If I am to write a book that has an analogous relation to my life/work as Inferno does to Eileen’s life/work, at what point will I be capable of writing it and what will it look like when that day comes?”—then I think we’re getting somewhere, and I guess that goes for the Cronin book, too. My poetry novel and then my sci-fi apocalypse trilogy—or should I switch the order? It’d be nice if they could somehow be the same project: a future-primitive world where poets are the only ones who can fight off the nuclear werewolves that plague our mud hut villages—or where the nuclear werewolves are all poets, and civilization’s last hope is to rediscover the printing press and placate the werewolf-poets by publishing their chapbooks.

Who is one young writer that we may not know about yet, but should?

If you haven’t read Flatscreen by Adam Wilson, you really should. It got a bunch of reviews, all good stuff I think, so there’s an increasingly heavy stress on the “may” in “may not know about”, but still. One thing about Adam is that his work is typically very funny—there’s a pervasive black farce atmosphere, plus plenty of actual jokes—and that has impacted the way he has been packaged and received, where people are like “Oh, it’s just a funny book”, or conversely, “Oh, I just want to read something funny so I guess I’ll read this book.” I’m not saying Adam’s less funny than people say. He’s really funny, on the page and in person. What I am saying is that when I read Flatscreen I was shocked and impressed by how much sadness there was in it, how much darkness and depth. Anyway, the book’s great, and if you’ve never heard of it before you read this paragraph you’d be doing yourself a favor to read it before you hear anything else.

Who is one late-career writer we may have overlooked?

Maybe this will sound insane but it feels like Saul Bellow’s kind of fallen out of the conversation since he died in 2005. Or maybe it began even before then, I don’t really know, since I didn’t encounter him until two years or so ago. All I had before then was a vague notion that Augie March was a quote unquote classic that you should probably know the name of but didn’t need to actually read. Bellow’s not really taught in English or creative writing classes, maybe because there’s this idea that he’s some fusty old-guardsman or maybe just because writing classes are mostly about short stories and his stuff is all long. Half the pieces in his Collected Stories are novellas, or might as well be. Anyway I think what happened with me was that Joshua Cohen—who has read everything by everybody—was over at my old apartment, and one of the roommates had a copy of Ravelstein on the shelf and it caught his eye. I forget what he said, probably something about its having very beautiful sentences or just that he liked it, and I had no idea what he was talking about so I picked it up. Since then I’ve read Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, the stories. I’d like to think I’ll read all his books eventually. For me, he’s the missing link between the sinuous-yet-meticulous styles of Henry James and Virginia Woolf and the hell-for-leather free jazz of Barry Hannah. I’ve started teaching him in every writing class I give and he’s invariably a big hit, I think because the voice is so rich. He’s so smart and big-hearted and, in his own way, wild. And you never have to worry that you’re showing them something they’ve seen ten times before, which I guess that’s the one upside of falling out of fashion—the work has a chance to lie fallow, become unfamiliar enough to regain the full force of its originality.